2017 Film Essays

‘Twin Peaks’ and Beyond the Alphabet

In 1990, the popular phenomenon of Twin Peaks exploded, triggered by a question — “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The mystery landed Mark Frost and David Lynch’s prime time soap opera on several magazine covers, including TV Guide, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times Review of Books, with stories about Lynch’s career highlighting even the conservative National Review and ultimately, days before the show’s second season would begin that October, Time. The cast appeared on Donahue, there were tie-in books (The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, written by Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer) and pop parodies (Saturday Night Live), all feeding on the sensational question of who killed the small town homecoming queen. Enthusiasm sparked viewing parties and “water cooler” discussions at work, with viewers deciphering the most recent episode (“What’s the meaning of the dwarf?”). But even during Twin Peaks’s celebrated first season, there was doubt of satisfactory closure. From my own fanatic, pre-internet periodical searches at the nearby library, I recall a quote from Lynch —  “It’s like sex, and it takes time” — being met with a journalist’s own vulgar question, which I paraphrase from memory, “Is this just a slow fuck leading up to a weak orgasm?” What solution could satiate speculative hunger? The answer we got, too late according to the assessing cultural discourse, was perceived as a stretch: not any of the boyfriends or girls jealous of Laura’s beauty, not the abusive drug dealer or enamored psychiatrist, but Laura’s own father, Leland — with the help of a parasitic supernatural demon named BOB.

So, how is the rudderless fad of Twin Peaks, having fallen on its face utterly with Lynch’s panned motion picture prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me in 1992, now coming back? “I’ll see you again in 25 years,” Laura (Sheryl Lee) said to Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in the June 1991 series finale, as he found himself trapped in the hellish “Black Lodge” underworld, his demon-possessed shadow-self emerging from the woods to surly wreak havoc on the townspeople. In the intervening years, television bingers on Netflix and Hulu (where the show has streamed in its entirety for years) have been introduced to Twin Peaks on a template where its charms and mysteries play better, without commercial interruption and with the resources of Internet commentary, which has nourished Geek Culture (of which Twin Peaks, I admit, has some relation) into a formidable beast. Meanwhile, cinephiles have resurrected Fire Walk with Me to cult masterpiece status, Lee’s performance as an incest and abuse victim recognizable as one of the 1990s best performances, a multilayered characterization anticipating where Lynch would go with his leading ladies, played respectively by Naomi Watts and Laura Dern, in Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). Once consigned to pop infamy (Entertainment Weekly placed Lynch alongside cover-story embarrassments like Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer), the rewards of Twin Peaks have overleaped the shallow circumlocutions of copy. In closely watching both the series and film, what becomes apparent is that Twin Peaks is about what’s beyond the limitations of words — “Who killed Laura Palmer?” — and the information transmitted through commentary which has, unfortunately, become the norm in serial television and franchise moviemaking. Despite all the weekly sequel speculation of what-happened-was and what-happens-next, the new Twin Peaks will not be screened for critics before its May 21st premiere on Showtime; rather, its first four hours will immediately be available to all subscribers, like an invitation for viewers to soak in its new incarnation, ruminating in its first quarter before moving through 12 more hours.

In the 1990 pilot, Frost and Lynch portrayed a frustrating disconnect between what viewers see and what they’re told. After discovering the anonymous corpse, fisherman Pete Martell (Jack Nance) phones Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and says, “She’s dead, wrapped in plastic,” the horrifying lakeside image already assigned a definite pronoun, memorably oblique in its delivery. Laura’s parents Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) and Leland (Ray Wise) understand their daughter is dead by registering fractals and reading silences, as do Laura’s best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and secret boyfriend James (James Marshall) in a high school classroom, the sight of a police officer whispering to the teacher played against a student deliriously screaming outside. “There’ll be an announcement,” the teacher says brokenly, but everyone already knows what’s happened. Words aren’t sufficient in addressing the dire truth, discerned through open-eyed intuition, and James snapping a pencil in half mutes alphabetical intrusion. It’s not until the police question Laura’s “public” boyfriend, rebellious football player Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), that viewers have the declaration “Laura Palmer’s been killed,” beginning an exchange where the words are so emotionally removed from what’s happened to Laura that it’s almost mordantly funny, with Bobby defensive about his innocence and — more insistent than how he “loved her” — how “she loved ME!”

The failure of language permeates Twin Peaks, an abundance of verbiage disintegrating under the looming and ageless presence in the woods. Cooper enters the town dictating the minutia of his observations to a tape recorder, “Diane.” Inspecting Laura’s corpse, he’s able to link the murder to that of another girl from a year before, Teresa Banks, by spotting a typewritten letter R in her ring fingernail (Teresa’s was with a T). Laura has two diaries, one full of banal dead-ends (“Asparagus for dinner again. I hate asparagus. Does this mean I’ll never grow up?”), the other, hidden with botanically obsessed shut-in Harold (Lenny Von Dohlen), an insight into Laura’s secret pain and dreams, but withholding the answer to the identity of her rapist. The myna bird Waldo mimics Laura’s words it overheard from its cage on the night of her murder (“Hurting me,” “Leo no,” “Don’t go there”). Bobby’s father, Major Garland Briggs (Don Davis), is a Project Bluebook government man who decodes transmissions from the ground beneath Twin Peaks, his customary satellite gibberish one night holding within it a couple clearly written messages: “Cooper,” and “The owls are not what they seem.” Investigators try to “crack the code and solve the crime” by reading Cooper’s dream, where a Little Man (Michael J. Anderson) and a smiling Laura communicate through skewered and cryptic sentences (“That gum you like is going to come back in style;” “She’s my cousin, but doesn’t she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer;” “Sometimes my arms bend back;” “Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air”) — all of their dialogue was recorded by Lynch, with the actors speaking backwards and then reversed to play forwards, conjoined with subtitles drawing one’s attention to words floating independently of gesture and context. What viewers don’t hear is what Laura whispers in Cooper’s ear, which he believes is the name of her killer. “Who did it?” Truman asks. And he responds like many upon immediately waking from a dream, however vivid: “I can’t remember.”

This leads to the poem from Cooper’s dream: “Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see, one chants out between two worlds — Fire walk with me,” the last baffling phrase written in blood on a dirty cloth where Laura was killed. As “one chants out between two worlds,” that of dream to waking life or of supernatural “lodges” to terrestrial firmament, Twin Peaks expresses a breakdown of clarity juxtaposed against the overwhelming power of knowing without the fractals of words, “fire” certainly denoting illumination and knowledge, just as it’s something unruly and dangerously consuming (and so down another rabbit hole in Twin Peaks’ mythology related to “electricity,” controlled fire circulating through phone wires and, throughout the series and film, creeping over the action and casting an inscrutable shadow). One can see the words in the spectral flicker, but “cracking the code” into simple signs, such as happens when Cooper’s dreamscape reemerges and he hears Laura say, “My father killed me,” terminates the mystery and circumscribes the blossoming world into a pictorial Power Point presentation of sorts.

In the series, there’s a clear distinction between this episode — when the characters clearly have a concrete answer for the murder followed by Leland/BOB’s confession and suicide, and the reduction of BOB (played by Frank Silva) to “the evil that men do — and an earlier episode, directed by Lynch (his last until the finale), where the audience is shown Leland murdering his niece Maddie Ferguson (also played by Lee, the double dynamic here echoed in a name appropriated from Vertigo‘s protagonist), an atrocious event unblinkingly dramatized, occurring as Cooper impotently watches a sad song played over the Road House’s red curtains, “The World Spins,” the supernatural Giant (Carel Struycken) materializing and repeating, “It is happening again,” with the post-script of an aging bellhop (Hank Warden) approaching Cooper to say, “I’m so sorry.”

The episode ends in ostensible failure, words a helpless and faraway echo of an unstoppable tragedy. But as one looks with Cooper at the drapes, there’s a fullness of knowledge intimating the deepest liminal stage “between two worlds,” that fourth wall between a film or TV show and its audience. A powerful unity folds over the accrediting expositional spider-web of character arcs and tangents, and as Leland’s true nature emerges — drugging his wife before killing Maddie with a demon’s aid — his guilt isn’t an “ah-ha!” revelation of sleuthing or linear deciphering, but feels built into the architecture of Twin Peaks from the first glimpse of the Palmer home, the revolving ceiling fan by Laura’s empty room denoting a terrible dynamism in the household from the start.

By showing but not revealing the killer, Twin Peaks laid out one more subversion of its form, in a sense making what followed — including Leland’s demise — superfluous, at least as pertains to the reductive question of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” According to Frost and Lynch, the decision to solve the mystery was due to pressure from network heads, resulting in Lynch’s subsequent disinterest, for a time, in Twin Peaks. Between Maddie’s murder, the Giant’s appearance and the bellhop’s apology, words wither helplessly and logic ossifies. There are no words. There’s horror, confusion, pain, love, longing, wind, music, light and color. Donna cries and James holds her, and Bobby Briggs looks on with his mouth-agape, sad in his displacement. The Log Lady looks at Cooper. There’s a poignant flash of the whole world in its necessarily transient revolutions, forms coming in and departing (“The World Spins”); horrifying and beautiful, the images and emotions play like revelatory brushstrokes on a crowded canvas, and in this central instance of muted dialogue the pith of Twin Peaks, its past and future, feels present. The full aesthetic arrest is ahead of verbal explanation, similar to how in the pilot Cooper looked at a videotape and discerned James’ motorcycle reflected in Laura’s eyes before Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) came to him with her typewritten eavesdropping of vengeful Bobby (“The man we’re looking for is a biker”).

As with a dream, Lynch is perched in a space where everything is plainly intuited, though with one allowance to the willful demand for verbal explication — the need to understand — meaning crumbles under the arbitrarily assigned consonance. Cooper’s interpretation of his dream at Leland’s arrest is a deflation of wonder which feels parallel to any number of interpretive reductions of Twin Peaks — or any Lynch film — to a clear, definitive secret message or meaning (which, yes, makes writing about him tricky work). In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch seems to parody this with his character, FBI Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, issuing a coded message to his agents (Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland) through a dancing girl, where all of her wardrobe and gestures have 1=1 signification, with the exception of a blue rose, about which viewers are told they can’t know. In a later scene, Cole’s office is visited by the long-lost Agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie), whose struggle to communicate what sounds like important information is complemented with frustrating signal-to-noise interruption, the sound and image distracted by dream images that ostensibly don’t cohere. The sequence ends and Jeffries has disappeared again, a worrisome Cooper asking Cole, “Gordon, what’s going on?” The director, to both Cooper and to his audience, is helpless to explain.

The “problem” of language has long been a part of Lynch’s movies, beginning with the 1968 short animated film The Alphabet, where a young woman in bed has a night terror of the letters, sung by children on the soundtrack. A voice says, “Remember you are dealing with the human form,” and the woman wakes up, vomiting blood. Traumatized in bed, she anticipates Laura Palmer in Fire Walk with Me, terrorized in her bed by bad dreams and a rapacious father who happens to be a lawyer (the arbiter of signs, holding sway through language, like the demon BOB spelling the name “Robert” in his typed fingernail implants). The alphabet becomes like the countenances seen through Twin Peaks — disparate “symbols” like creamed corn, the monkey, the dwarf, the giant, the log, scorched engine oil and so on — which obfuscate clarity if one remains fixed on their literalness, including BOB (if one insists he is a wholly supernatural parasite feeding off the innocent Leland or wholly metaphor, a projection of Leland’s dark side). Fire Walk with Me’s “Pink Room” orgy, with Laura prostituting herself and indulging in drugs, mirrors the supernatural Lodge sequences, where perplexing sentences are subtitled. But the words on the screen cease when Laura sees callow Donna (played in the film by Moira Kelly) being ravished (and, notably, wearing Laura’s garment). Laura’s intervention breaks the alphabetical masquerade, her superficial excuse which one can barely make out (“Never wear my stuff!”) — a transparent buffer for love and concern for her best friend. In the climactic scene where Leland/BOB kills Laura, the spoken prayers of Ronette Pulaski (Pheobe Augustine) and the accusatory pages from Laura’s diary (shoved into her face by her father) are quashed by the preternatural image of a serene Angel, an evanescent visual suspension that transcends a determinate plotline that has already been written (this is a film prequel, after all), eventually showering grace on the murdered girl with an empyreal glow. The Angel that saved Ronette, it is inferred, came from Laura.

Attempting to describe the conclusion of Fire Walk with Me demonstrates Lynch’s relationship to the mystery that eludes the imperious and reductive assignations of language (and maybe the shortcomings of my own words). The sublime clarity seen in Laura radiates through one’s submission to the image, communicating voluminous wonder in its ineffability. Which of course doesn’t preclude the verbal groundwork of mysteries, and how there’s a new series of Twin Peaks which will pick up those broken pieces from the series finale and film and, in some way, prompt viewers again to take flashlights into the dark, discerning, scrutinizing and criticizing hot-takes (God help us). The weekly and monthly magazines of 1990-1992 have been supplanted by this more infinitely complex medium, the barrage of conflicting information reminiscent of the signal-to-noise of Lynch’s FBI experiences with Agent Jeffries’ incoherent message: more information, more noise, more anxiety, more of the imprisoning alphabet. Mark Frost’s thrilling prequel/sequel from last year, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, is an epistolary novel full of discrepancies at odds with the show’s “canon.” This is likely by design and maybe an auger to how Frost and Lynch’s distrust of verbal information has accelerated in tandem with its postmodern proliferation. Frost’s “archivist” begins the novel by writing, “[Mystery] is the most essential ingredient of life, for the following reason: mystery creates wonder, which leads to curiosity, which in turn provides the ground for our desire to understand who and what we truly are… Mysteries are the stories we tell ourselves to contend with life’s resistance to our longing for answers.” The world may be absurd, but, to echo the song we hear when that first mystery was “solved,” the world spins. Returning to Twin Peaks, we should remember we’re not moving on a straight line of information, but beholding a sphere revolving with meaning and a circumference of incalculable wonder, “between two worlds,” existing on either side of the screen.

Niles Schwartz (@nilesfiles) has written for RogerEbert.com and The Point Magazine (thepointmag.com). He is one of the founding members of the new Minneapolis/St. Paul Cinephile Society (mspcinephiles.org), where he also blogs. His book, ‘Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies,’ is scheduled for release later in 2017.